From restaurant reviewer to priest

GREENVILLE — For longtime parishioners at St. Mary Church, Michael Cassabon is somewhat of a legend — just ask his mother, Mary.

Deacon Cassabon attended first- through eighth-grade at St. Mary, and according to his mother, on one occasion her son somehow managed to get a pencil eraser stuck in his nose.

“He was rushed to the ER,” Mary recalls, though at the time she misinterpreted the message from the school and thought that her son had somehow gotten a razor up his nose.

While rushing to his aid, Mary said she kept asking herself: “How did he get a razor at St. Mary’s?”

The eraser was safely extracted and now, some 20 years later, the 26-year-old Greenville native is returning to St. Mary as a priest.

Deacon Cassabon spent a good part of his early years playing golf with his grandfather, whom he called “Poppop,” and building things with his Lego® block sets, Mary said.

In the mid-90s, he was in the second incoming class at what was then St. Joseph’s High School in Greenville, “the school that was founded and nourished to fruition through the dedication of parents who wanted Catholic schooling to be part of their children’s lives,” Mary said.

Before he started attending the school, he spent many weekends working there with other kids and their parents.

“Michael was an integral part of this effort, as were a number of other ‘students-to-be.’ It was an incredible bonding time for the families and those who later became close and lasting friends,” Mary said.

Neil O’Connor, who taught Deacon Cassabon, said it has been “a great reward to my catechetical career to witness Deacon Michael Cassabon’s priestly vocation.”

“His intellect has always been admirable. His communication skills, both written and verbal, were evident during the four years I taught him at St Joseph’s. At times, I would almost have to ask him not to write so much in answering the questions.”

Neil said that Father Hayden Vaverek, who traveled from Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood to offer Mass at the high school, was an important and early mentor for Deacon Cassabon.

“During Michael’s senior year, I would take him and a few other students to the Saturday evening Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood, then we would have supper with Father Hayden — who was acutely attuned to the priestly vocation in our midst,” Neil said.

Deacon Cassabon graduated from St. Joseph’s in 1998 and enrolled at Furman University in Greenville, where he spent his freshman and sophomore years.

While at Furman, Deacon Cassabon led an effort to revive the Newman Club, which is a Catholic student organization, Mary said.

“He expanded and energized the membership and brought in many prominent speakers to campus,” she said, including Bishop Robert J. Baker.

During Deacon Cassabon’s time at the university, he contributed restaurant reviews to The Greenville News.  Neil would often join him in those meals.

“It took several meals before Michael fully appreciated that the newspaper was paying him to eat, so he could order anything he wanted,” Neil said.

Deacon Cassabon also invited him to speak to the Newman Club on several occasions, Neil said.

“He reminded me recently that I had given him the Code of Canon Law as a gift while he was in college.  Little did either of us imagine at that moment  that  he would employ it while studying in Rome,” he said.

Deacon Cassabon majored in political science and philosophy at Furman and many of his family and friends thought he was headed for a career in politics. But he surprised them by announcing at the end of his sophomore year that he was leaving Furman to go to the seminary in Ohio, The Pontifical College Josephinum.

“We, the parents, were astounded, as this was the kid who refused to be an altar boy in front of ‘all those people’ at St. Mary’s,” his mother said.

Deacon Cassabon consulted with Neil and others prior to making his decision.

“He wrestled the most with how to answer his call to the priesthood,” Neil said.  “Should he finish Furman, then go to seminary? Finish his undergraduate degree in a seminary setting?  What about the Legionaries of Christ who were courting him to religious life versus his local pastors encouraging him to serve in the diocesan clergy?”

Neil said that Father Jay Scott Newman at St. Mary told a story at the dinner celebrating Deacon Cassabon’s diaconal ordination. He said that after Deacon Cassabon had driven Bishop Baker around Greenville during a visit to the Newman Club at Furman, the bishop had called him (Father Newman) and said, “You’ve got a priestly vocation at Furman. Go get him.”

Deacon Cassabon completed his degree in 2002. The following year,  he worked in the religion department at Bishop England High School, using that experience as a year of discernment before leaving for Rome to attend the North American College.

It was a difficult farewell for mom and dad.

“It was just plain hard seeing him leave, knowing that we wouldn’t see him for a year,” Mary said. “Of course, Michael had to be practical and told us how ‘in the early days’ it would be at least four years before seminarians returned home, letters took months and there were no telephones, or e-mail communication or numbers that would provide inexpensive contact. How could parents be upset when there was all that?”

Deacon Cassabon has spent four years in Rome, hosting family members, friends and some strangers while earning his degree.

“One of the most memorable times for us as parents was sending our younger son off to visit Michael,” Mary said. “They called when Matthew arrived and we never heard from them again until they were on their way home for Christmas. I guess what happens in Rome, stays in Rome.”

On two occasions, Neil said he arranged for Deacon Cassabon to speak live via phone from Rome during school chapel assembly. The first was simply to describe the life of a seminarian in Rome, he said, while the second opportunity was at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death.

“I taped and edited the papal funeral during the night.  During our assembly, Michael described the events in Rome that he had seen and participated in only a few hours previous as a preface to our students viewing the funeral Mass.”

Mary said the travel has been a “remarkable opportunity” for Deacon Cassabon and the young men who study there who have opportunities to see Europe and learn about the cultures.

And it’s a journey that is far removed from the elementary school kid who was rushed to the hospital after getting an eraser up his nose. Or, as Mary noted, even farther from “the little toddler who used to sleep on the kneeler during Mass and periodically stand on it to question in the loudest of voices — usually at the most inappropriate time, like during the consecration — ‘What is God doing mommy? What is God doing now?’ ”

Deacon Cassabon will celebrate his first Mass at 11 a.m. July 29 at St. Mary.

Who’s to say there won’t be a toddler — and perhaps a future priest — in that congregation asking his parents the same questions?